The Danger of Christian Primitivism
While writing my previous article that praised the virtues of Christian primitivism and its capacity to spark church renewal, it occurred to me that it would be appropriate to address the inherent dangers of Christian primitivism. Simply put, Christian primitivism is an ideological viewpoint that attempts to restore Christianity to the original structures and practices of the New Testament Church because it is believed that the Church has strayed from its own foundation over the years. From my perspective, there are four main dangers associated with practicing a primitive form of church: (1) pride in one’s own Christian experience, (2) devaluing the experience of other Christians, (3) a sectarian spirit, and (4) heterodoxy. Even though there may be good reasons for adopting a New Testament approach to church structures and practices, one should proceed with caution, self-awareness, charity, and humility.
The Danger of Heterodoxy
Even though Christian primitivism often leads to the renewal and revitalization of the universal church, the same primitive spirit can be responsible for producing heterodox movements. For example, heterodox groups such as the Latter-Day Saints believe that they have restored the church to its primitive roots. According to Mormons, after the death of the last Apostles the church fell into a time of Great Apostasy until Joseph Smith restored the true church and re-established a Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Smith’s efforts began in response to his desire to join the true church of Christ. He supposedly learned in a vision that no true church existed, and that God had chosen him to restore the New Testament Church. However, from the perspective of the majority of orthodox Christians, Joseph Smith strayed into heterodoxy and left behind the True Church in his effort to restore the primitive church.
Even today primitivist movements sprout up claiming to restore the church to its true New Testament roots. This past summer, a student brought to my attention a local movement of hyper-dispensationalists that believe they practice the original faith as rightly understood by the Apostle Paul.1 They do not practice water baptism because that was John’s baptism. Instead they only practice baptism in the Spirit. They do not pray the Lord’s Prayer because that prayer belongs to an era that precedes the current era of grace. My student gave me a brochure from the church explaining why it is “good news” that Christians don’t have to pray the Lord’s Prayer. In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness from God is contingent on forgiving others. From their perspective, that is not grace. The true “good news,” as they see it, is that one can be forgiven without forgiving. While this viewpoint might seem to highlight the scandal of God’s grace, it is foolish to relegate the teachings of Christ himself to a bygone era. Christianity, if nothing else, is a way of living firmly rooted in following Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord. The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the core essence of the faith. To reject the teachings of Christ is to undermine the foundation of the entire faith. When my student showed me the brochure, I was incredibly blunt with him. I told him that this primitive movement had strayed so far from historic orthodoxy that it could no longer properly be considered a Christian church in my judgment. In the attempt to restore the primitive church, one can run the risk of abandoning the Body of Christ.
Sectarianism: A Pandora’s Box
While not always leading to heterodoxy, Christian primitivism runs the risk of falling into sectarianism and schism. This is why noted primitivists such as Martin Luther or John Wesley did not actively seek to leave their church of origin or establish a new denomination. However, the spirit of primitivism seems to inevitably pull in the direction of sectarianism. By its own logic, primitivism engrains the mindset that only our particular expression of the church is faithful to the “true church” of the New Testament. This creates an inevitably tension with the larger church body and schism becomes inevitable. Once schism begins, it begets more and more division. Even though Wesley never intended to leave the Church of England, his revival movement has produced Methodist, Nazarene, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal churches. The primitivist mindset is unavoidably sectarian, and over time becomes a kind of Pandora’s Box.
However, all is not necessarily doom and gloom for sectarian movements. Scholars of church history have observed what is commonly known as the church-sect typology. This means that throughout history, the church has existed in both institutional and hierarchical forms as well as in organic and egalitarian forms. Even though these two forms of church appear diametrically opposed, they are connected to each other in a mutually reinforcing cycle. Institutional forms of the church preserve the doctrines and maintain the faith through times of decline and spiritual apathy. At the same time, institutional forms run the risk of becoming lifeless and rooted in rote tradition. Then, along comes a sectarian renewal movement that breathes new life into the structures of the church and challenges believers to lead a more active and disciplined Christian life. These sectarian movements subsequently force the institutional church to adapt and make changes. Then, ironically enough, given enough time the sect will grow and develop into a new church body that will inevitably produce more sects down the line. When looking at the topic from this angle, it suggests that churches and sects both need each other and benefit in some ways from each other.
Even if a primitivist mindset does not result in either heterodoxy or schism, it runs the risk of producing a spiritual pride and arrogance that may be the greatest danger of all. As I stated above, primitivism engrains the idea that our church practices the original way. By correlation, this subtly reinforces the idea that I am a true Christian because I belong to a church that follows the true way. This sense of superiority of one’s own church and one’s own practice, inevitably results in judgmentalism. If my church is best, then what does that say about all other churches? If I practice the faith the true way, then what does that say about all other Christians who practice differently than me? This type of spiritual pride has two layers. One, a high estimation of myself, and, two, a devaluing of other Christians. In short, Christian primitivism runs the risk of producing church snobs.
Many people are familiar with the idea of coffee snobs. These are people who believe that the masses often settle for middle-of-the-road enjoyment. The masses like coffee that is the least offensive to the most amount of palates. Therefore, you get coffee with a vague sense of slightly bitter and burnt nuttiness and a hint of chocolate. Coffee snobs quickly learn that there is a rich spectrum of complex flavors to explore– fruity, savory, earthy, buttery, toffee, jam, honey, and many more. In their enthusiasm for their new experiences, snobs cannot help but disparage the preferences of the masses. If you drink a single origin roast from Counter Culture coffee, you most certainly scoff at Folger’s house roast and all those who enjoy its bland and lifeless flavor. In some ways, the personal enjoyment of snobs is enhanced by the esoteric knowledge that others are missing out on a much more sophisticated coffee drinking experience.
Unfortunately, the same phenomenon happens with churches. We value our own church experiences so highly, that it is hard for us not to pass a value judgment on other churches and other Christians. While this air of snobbery can be found in any type of church, there seems to be an even greater risk in a house church or a primitivist movement. When you practice church in a way that you believe is very similar to the first Christians in Jerusalem,2 it is hard not to devalue other expressions of church. In other words, it is hard for folks in a house church not to subconsciously believe that they are drinking Counter Culture, and everyone else is settling for Folger’s.
What is the solution to this snobbery? One, members of a house church need to humble themselves and recognize that if they are not on guard they can easily stray into bizarre and heterodox beliefs. Two, all Christians would do well to recognize that the body of Christ is a beautifully diverse phenomenon. There is enough space in the body for both churches and sects, and each one plays a vital role in the overall life of the Church Universal. Lastly, all Christians should deeply value their own worship experiences and their own communities of faith without devaluing the experiences of others. There are many different palates in the Body of Christ, and there is a wide range of flavors to suit all different tastes.
(1) This movement is called mid-Acts dispensationalism, or, from what I can gather, can also be called Acts 9 dispensationalism. The idea is that a new dispensation or new era of Christianity began with Paul’s conversion. Everything pre-Paul (life and teachings of Jesus and ministry of the original Twelve Apostles) is relegated to a bygone era. A student of early Christian history might note a strong similarity between this mindset and the heresy of Marcion.
(2) Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-37